2019 - The Climate year in Review

Forge the Future #32

Welcome to Forge the Future, your weekly guide to all things climate. This week, I’m running through the major events of 2019 from a climate perspective, highlighting the biggest stories of the year, as well what we should look forward to in 2020.

This year has been a big one for me personally - I decided to work full-time on the climate, and started this newsletter. It’s been a rollercoaster ride, but I’ve met so many incredible people doing amazing work along the way - it’s definitely been worth it. The newsletter has grown from a weekly missive to a few friends to well over 100 people, and I’m hoping that growth can continue into 2020 - thank you to everyone who’s signed up, and to those who’ve helped spread the word - I really appreciate it!

State of the Climate

CO2 levels this week: 412.21 ppm
This time last year: 409.24 ppm

I’ve been including these CO2 numbers since the very start, and you may have noticed that we’re up on last year every week. CO2 emissions are up 0.6% from 2018, which is a slowing of CO2 growth, but still means we’re producing more each year. The longer we stay on this path of rising emissions, the more severe the drop must be to keep us below 1.5°C of global warming.

2019 could well also be seen as the year that climate change really started to make itself known. Huge fires have raged across the Arctic, the Amazon, Indonesia, California and Australia, and the world is struggling to adapt to this new normal. Europe saw another huge heatwave, with heat records falling across the continent, and July becoming the hottest month in human history. Indeed, 2019 as a whole is set to be the second or third hottest year ever, with temperatures from January to October 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels.

Continuing the tour of classical elements, water also played a part in its share of catastrophes. This year saw floods in the UK, Italy, USA, East Africa, Iran, India, much ofSouth America, and more. Many areas of the world were also hit by heavy droughts, including Southern Africa, East Africa (before the floods later in the year), India, Australia, and more besides.

Ice also played a part this year, but mostly due to its rapid disappearance. The European heatwave caused massive melting of the Greenland icesheet, and around the world, glaciers havebeen shrinking or even disappearing entirely

The year has been punctuated by the regular publication of IPCC reports, which despite their length and dry tone, have highlighted the drastic ways in which the world is changing (and will continue to change). 

There is of course far more than can be summarised here, but a glance back through the newsletter archives will give you plenty of fodder, though be warned - it’s not the happiest of reading.

Visualisation of the Week

Changing tides

If 2019 is known for anything, it would be the rise of protest movements. This year saw the rise of Extinction Rebellion in Europe, with shutdowns of London happening twice this year, and a huge swell in popular support for climate movements. There has also been a marked shift in the demographics of the climate movement. For years, it’s been the focus of largely white and middle-class folks, but 2019 has in many ways been the year of the youth climate movement. Greta Thunberg, the Fridays for Future movement, and youth activists everywhere have shown the power of young voices in raising awareness of the climate. They’re also a harder voice for politicians to ignore than the traditional ‘uncooperative crusties’ of the climate movement.

This is the start of a new movement, one of inclusivity, led by women, minorities, people of colour, and underrepresented groups. Whilst there is still much more work to be done on diversity in the climate movement (as there is everywhere in society), it is a powerful sign of the climate movement as a force for good, in bringing people together. After all, floods, fires and other catastrophes care little for your demographics (although as I’ve mentioned in the past, the most deprived are often the most at risk).

General support from the wider population for the climate movement has never been higher, and that acceptance into the wider consciousness has led to some initial recognition by both business and politicians. We’ve seen a huge number of cities, states and countries making carbon neutrality declarations, and businesses are starting to consider sustainability and their own carbon footprints. At the moment, these are still mostly token gestures, but nevertheless, it shows the power of wider awareness and support, though we definitely must keep up the pressure going into 2020.

News Highlights

US vs the Climate

This year has seen the US confirm their departure from the Paris Agreement (although they will not formally leave until November next year), and continue their strong anti-environmentalist stance. A number of existing pieces of legislation have been repealed or overturned, including everything from clean water protections to energy efficient lighting (Trump claiming that the latter makes him look orange).

The EPA has also been on a war against climate science in particular, and science in general, including trying to limit the types of research permitted when writing public health rules, and removing data from key reports, blocking speakers from conferences, and much more.

The US has also doubled down on fossil fuels, with the country set to produce vastly more oil and gas in the next five years than any other country in the world. All of thiis has been assisted by a revolving door of lobbyists assuming key positions in the administration, from Energy Secretary to Interior Secretary - at the last count, the administration has appointed 281 former lobbyists.

Despite that, the coal industry in the US has been declining faster than ever, with numerous coal companies filing for bankruptcy and seemingly new coal plant closures announced every week. Mostly, this has been due to economic reasons, with coal just not profitable in an energy climate dominated by renewables and cheap natural gas.

Last but not least, there’s been the battle between the EPA and California over emissions standards. California set its own stricter limits, which were challenged by the EPA as the administration rolled back Obama-era tighter emissions laws. This then devolved into a slugging match, with lawsuits flying back and forth, as California fights not only for emissions laws but more generally, the autonomy to act independently of the White House on environmental matters.

Other News

Of course, the world is more than just the US, and much has gone on elsewhere too. This year has seen still further drops in the price of renewables and batteries, and the UK has seen several subsidy-free solar farms come online, and subsidy-free offshore wind is likely to follow soon.

Much attention has been on China this year, as aside from the ongoing trade war with the US, it has struggled this year with its push on renewables. China invested heavily into renewables and EVs, and has deliberately positioned itself as the source for much of the world’s battery, solar, wind and EV technology. However, this year has seen China cutting back its subsidies, to encourage these nascent industries to stand on their own feet, and this has resulted in a drop in renewable growth. A rise in planned coal plants has left some questioning China’s previous ambition as a leader in clean energy, although overall, despite a hike in the number of coal plants being built across Asia, coal plant utilisation is at a new low.

The year has seen several high profile climate conventions, including the UN Climate Action summit in New York in September, and the recent COP25 in Madrid. Both saw much talk of action, but few concrete decisions, and indeed both were dominated by protests and youth-led movements calling for more to be done.

Lastly, the latter half of the year has seen fossil fuel companies showing their true colours for the first time. Most major fossil fuel companies are facing lawsuits for the harm that they have caused, and a congressional hearing revealed how Exxon scientists predicted the effects of climate change in the 1970s. Most firms have engaged in heavy greenwashing, pouring huge sums into advertising to persuade the public that they’ve changed face, but sentiment is turning against them, both amongst the public and also investors, who are starting to divest from such firms in increasing numbers.

Long Reads

I’ll keep this brief this week, but some highlights for you:

The End Times

I’ve probably missed more than a few major stories in this round-up, but it’s been a busy year! It can be disheartening to look back and see all the catastrophes, the lack of progress, the regression in some areas. However, it also feels like climate moved into public awareness in a big way this year, and activism has never been stronger. Political will is slow to change, but it feels like with public sentiment supporting action, we may finally see meaningful change. Will it be too little, too late? Only time will tell, but we shouldn’t lose hope. This is a long fight, and we have to keep pushing for change for many years to come. Hopefully you’ve had a chance to rest, recover and recharge a little over the festive period. I don’t know what 2020 will bring, but we will need all the energy and drive we can get to push the climate movement forward.

As always, thank you for reading, and if you’ve any feedback or suggestions for me, I’d love to hear them (you can reach me at oli@forgethefuture.com). If you feel like sharing this, I’d massively appreciate it! See you next week,